One Main Reason Why Startups Fail

Not too long ago, I spoke with a social geographer who is an expert in doing field research. He said that in social geographical research (e.g. research into questions like “What are the current needs of citizens in a specific district of a city?”), there’s a problem with most people with a university education. Specifically, these people, who often work for the university or local government, prefer to stay behind their computer. They want to send out an online survey to citizens, get the answers, and then get into the nitty-gritty details of analyzing those answers. The goal is to write up a report, hand it over to a colleague, and then do it all over again.

The issue, you may see, is that these researchers never come face-to-face with the citizens themselves. They never really talk to the people who they write their reports about. And this conversation made me think of startup founders and entrepreneurs, who often face the exact same issue. Startups fail. And startup founders fail a lot. And although there is a variety of frameworks to mitigate this, one main reason why startups fail is exactly why social geographical research often does not work: just like researchers, startup founders do not speak to their customers; not often enough or not in the right way.


The Problem Statement: Failing Startups

So the problem is clear: Startups fail. Generally, between 80% and 90% of startups do not exist anymore 20 years after their founding. This is not necessarily limited to new businesses alone. Whether it’s startups created by larger companies (intrapreneurship) or startups created by new entrepreneurs, they all often fail. Note that we could discuss what it means to fail, but here we will take failure simply as not reaching a state of profitability.

And you could say that so much failure is not that big of an issue. After all, entrepreneurs know they face significant risks, and still there seem to be plenty of entrepreneurs willing to take such risks. Although there could be even more entrepreneurs (and we could promote entrepreneurship in Europe particularly), innovation is thriving.

Yet, there could be even more innovation. We could have more innovative new companies disrupting markets and offering new and exciting products. We could have more technologies, more ways to connect, improve our lives and the lives of others and those in need.

And if we focus not just on promoting entrepreneurship, but rather on making sure that those who do take the entrepreneurial plunge fail less often, the result should be exactly that. Very generally, the more we can ensure that startups do not fail, the better it is for society at large.


Why Startups Fail

Although I started this article with pointing to a main reason why startups fail, at first sight it isn’t easy to make this conclusion. After all, there are many varied reasons why startups fail: A company hasn’t figured out the problem space and solution space; it hasn’t found the right market for its product; it runs out of ways to finance itself; the founders can’t decide how to divide the pie; or there’s an entirely different factor at play.

The point is, there are millions of reasons and factors that cause startups to fail. And certainly, many of those factors are outside of the control of policy makers, the founders themselves, or people like myself who try to do a little bit of educating.

But we can make some generalizations. While there are often factors that are outside of the control of a founder, there are also factors that are inside their control and yet cause their startup to fail. So whether it’s the failure of finding the right market — not offering the right product to the right people, or not doing what your customers want, these things all come down to one thing: not talking to customers, and/or not doing so in the right way.


The Build Trap

A lot has been said and written about talking to customers. And it makes sense; just like the social geographer, if we’re trying to improve the lives of a specific group of people — we first need to talk to them. We have to understand their needs, wishes, hopes, dreams, habits, connections, and really get to know who they are.

But it’s so easy to fall in what Melissa Perri calls The Build Trap. Many starting entrepreneurs I speak, don’t start with the customer in mind. Rather, they start with an idea of a product or service. For them (and I’ve also belonged to this group), it’s easy to simply ‘start building’.

Once you have an idea, why not make it true? But before you know it, you’re a year down the road and still haven’t showed your product to anyone who wasn’t a direct friend or relative.

In other words, it’s very easy to get into a working process where you’re focussing on the product: you’re building, building, building — instead of showing, showing, showing (or in Lean Startup lingo: testing, measuring, validating).


Escaping The Build Trap

So how do you escape the Build Trap? Melissa Perri recommends a few different ways in her book. But as stated, there are many frameworks and methodologies to build startups the right way. The Lean Startup is one, working agile is another. By repeated sprints, the idea is that you get more feedback and improve the product over time on the basis of direct feedback rather than delivering everything at the end.

But regardless of what framework you choose, it really comes down to this: Talking to customers. For example, there are plenty of companies who work agile, but still fall into a build trap. They use sprints, review the product every week (at the Sprint Review), and feel that they’re on the right track. But as long as you don’t speak to customers regularly, and speak to customers in the right way*, you could well deliver an expensive product after a year of building agile, and still have no customers to speak of.

So the point is: escaping the Build Trap requires a shift in thinking — and thinking more about your customers. And even though many people (like myself) indeed like to sit in front of their computer, it’s incredibly important to not only start talk to customers at the beginning, but to keep speaking to customers every step of the way.

* Note that there’s much more to say about talking to customers in the right way. If you want a quick pointer, I recommend reading The Mom Test, which shows exactly what questions to (not) ask potential customers.


One Main Reason Why Startups Fail: Not Speaking to Customers

If you ever participate in a Startup Weekend (which I definitely recommend you do), there’s one sentence that gets thrown around a lot. It is this: Get Out of the Building.

The idea is that you have to get out of the building to validate your business idea, product or service. You can’t make sure that people want to buy it by not interacting with potential customers and simply sitting in front of your computer. This is particularly true when working with such a short timeframe as a Startup Weekend, but it holds true for any startup. As founders, we have to get out of the building, and we have to do it regularly.

So if you already have a startup, let this serve as a reminder. Make sure to book those ‘talk-to-customer sessions’ on your agenda. Alternatively, if you’re just starting a business, think about how to best approach your customers, and talk to them regularly. As a result, I’m sure your chance of failure will significantly diminish.

Note that this post includes affiliate links from Amazon; as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Irrational Pricing: An Example of Behavioral Economics

People are inherently economic creatures. Not ‘economic’ as in ‘cheap’, but ‘economic’ as in ‘taking part in economic transactions’. In this sense, we’re Homo Economicus. Every day we do a number of transactions. We go to the supermarket to buy our groceries, order a new tv on Amazon, or try to sell a new product to one of our customers.

What these transactions all have in common, is that there is a price. There is a price for the groceries you just paid, and there is a price for the TV you just bought, and there is a price for the service you’re selling to your company’s customers.

And prices are super interesting. Because a price is not just an arbitrary number. A price is a signal. A signal entering your brain, providing information you use to make decisions. Whether you’re on the supply or the demand side of the transaction.

But this signal, this information, this data does not stand on its own. And although (some) economists like to say we’re rational beings, we aren’t. The way we see prices, and the way we use price information in our decision process is highly subjective, and it’s dependent on the context of the transaction. So while some may say that we’re homo economicus, we’re a being of a particular irrational kind.


Irrational Pricing: An Example

How can you quickly see that people are irrational when it comes to prices? Well, just start comparing products you don’t usually compare.

Suppose for instance that you’ve found this new great game on your phone. Something like Angry Birds. It’s fun, engaging, slightly addicting, and a great distraction from work when needed. The only downside is — it’s full of advertisements. Do you spend the €10 required to remove the ads and not be annoyed?

“Of course not! €10 is way too much for an app, let alone a simple mobile game”, you say. So instead, you grit your teeth and sit through these annoying ads every few minutes. Over the lifetime of you playing the game, perhaps you’ve watched a total of 3 hours of advertisements, but that’s totally worth it because you saved those 10 euros.

Now it’s two days later and you’re planning to have a drink with some friends. You go out, order a drink and happily spend €20 on a night. Depending on your preference, perhaps you spend €10 for the first cocktail alone, and then a couple of drinks after that.

Why is it that we happily spend this money on one night of drinks, and would strongly hesitate to spend half in order to be less annoyed and have more fun playing Angry Birds? If we were rational beings, we would think of exactly what time or enjoyment benefit each of those would bring, and decide for one or the other (and probably the ‘no-ad Angry Birds’ would be a no-brainer).

But we aren’t, and we usually don’t compare two transactions that would otherwise not be related (other than the money used in paying comes from the same bank account). But if we do, you see that irrational pricing is our modus operandi.


Different Ways to Price Things

So though we are not rational beings, and there is much more context to a transaction than just the price, we do sometimes need to price things. We need to put a price on things we sell, and consider whether we think a price is fair to pay for things we buy.

And there are several ways to price things. Business studies give us a few options. For instance, in competition-based pricing, you price the thing you sell on the basis of competition. Simply look at what others sells the product or service for, and choose the same price or go a bit lower or higher. In cost-based pricing, you look at the costs you make in producing the product and adding a percentage for other costs and profit. Using value-based pricing you would look at not what it costs, but at the perceived value of the product and what the customer is ready to pay. And certainly, there are a number of other pricing strategies (think freemium pricing, penetration pricing, dynamic pricing, etc.)

Whatever strategy you choose, many of these work pretty well if you’re on the selling side. If you’re a freelancer, it’s easiest to take a look at what other freelancers change and base your rate on that. Alternatively, if you manufacture products, cost-based pricing may make more sense.

So these things work well as sellers, but we don’t really explicitly use them as buyers. We never look at what a an app or round of drinks has cost to build — or even what the value we get out of this app or these drinks is worth to us. As such, this is another example of irrational pricing.

Nonetheless, we do use competition-based pricing. Take the app example; we find it expensive because we normally never have to pay for an app. So we do check out the competition and base our decision on that. In fact, we use a reference.


Referencing and Price Anchoring

And perhaps that’s the most interesting aspect of pricing and how we view prices. We simply cannot handle one price on its own. Suppose for instance that you go to another country where you don’t know the local currency. The first thing you do after landing is get a meal, and you soon hear that it costs 50 Rai stones. Now how do you respond? Is that expensive? Cheap? Just the right price?

If we don’t have other prices to use as a reference point, we’re lost. We need reference points to determine whether something is the right price. And from a rational point of view, it makes sense — it’s only when we know what a currency is worth, that we can determine what we want to pay for an item (a meal in this case) in that currency.

However, we really, really like these reference prices. Irrationally so. Take for instance a reference price taken from the same transaction; let’s say that you’re engaged in a transaction where pricing is not fixed, but based on negotiation. Perhaps you need to conduct salary negotiations, you’re buying things on a second-hand market, or you need to haggle for a souvenir in a Moroccan souk.

The party providing the first price sets the reference point: the anchor. Now when the other party does a counter-offer, he/she does that with the first anchor price in mind. And the weird thing is, you cannot undo you taking notice of that first reference point.

This is called anchoring and is in fact a cognitive bias (as also mentioned in the really interesting book Thinking Fast and Slow). But this type of irrational pricing is really difficult to overcome. If you’re selling items on a second-hand market and someone offers €1.50 for your €100 boots, would you still ask for the €50 price you had in mind? Probably not — you can’t undo having heard the €1.50 offer.


Homo Economicus Irrationals

So where does that leave us? Well, perhaps you already knew this, but we really are irrational beings. And it’s easy to see that we are irrational when it comes to pricing things* — whether you compare two unrelated transactions with one another, look at how we value things from a buyer perspective, or consider price anchoring.

On the one hand, that makes pricing slightly more difficult. Because people don’t actually act in according to what economic theory often tells us. Indeed, you could say we’re homo economicus irrationalis**.

But on the other, you can also take advantage of the fact that we’re irrational beings. And make irrational pricing rational.

For example, the next time you buy something, consider the value it will bring you — and whether that value warrants the price asked. Alternatively, use it in a work setting. If you’re pricing yourself as a freelancer, or if you’re in salary negotiations at a new job, and you have to indicate your previous salary, try to bend the truth a little and increase it. That salary will be the reference point for the negotiation; and your new employer will now start the negotiation in reference to that higher price.

* And I didn’t even mention the advantage of prices that end on a 9, like €1.99, which apparently actually really increase sales!
** Note also that in economics, the term ‘homo economicus’ is often used to mean economically rational beings, so perhaps this isn’t the right way of putting it either.

The 3 Paradoxes of Happiness and Success

Just like anyone, I want to be happy. But for a long time, I wasn’t actively thinking about what would or would not make me happy. And for some reason, over the last years I’ve grown more interested in the topic. It comes back in some of the books I read and articles I write (e.g. on Strengths and Happiness).

Happiness however, is an elusive concept. It’s not easy to understand, pursue, or ‘have’. And as someone who likes to strive for success, happiness seems to be particularly elusive. Specifically, I found 3 paradoxes of happiness and success that make it difficult for people who strive for success to be happy, and the other way around. So what are these, and how do we manage them?


What is Success?

Suppose that you could be super successful in any area of your life with just one push of a button. Would you do it? You probably would. Success is a positive state, and while not everyone very actively strives for it, you would accept it when it comes to you.

Apparently, success is a positive thing. But if we talk about success, what do we mean? It can be success in your career, success in love, success in friendships, success in life. And success in each of these aspects of our lives (and many more) can again be sub-divided. For instance, what do we mean with success in love? Is it that your partner is beautiful, or that he/she is great with kids? Or perhaps success in love is simply having a lot of people fall in love with you?

So how we define success differs from person to person. For example, every day I strive to learn more, to be a kinder person, to be more extraverted, to grow my income, to become a more loving and positive future husband, to positively impact more people at the meetups that I organize, etc.

For me, these things constitute striving for success. So more generally, I see success an an improvement of the way things currently are. And I suppose that’s something I and many others want.


What is Happiness?

With that out of the way, let’s turn to happiness. We all have an idea of what happiness is. In positive psychology (“the scientific study of the ‘good life’“), happiness can be defined as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile” (Lyubomirsky).

That’s still a rather broad definition. But it’s important to note that happiness is not feeling good all of the time. It’s not the same as pleasure — like the pleasure we may get from sex, food, sugar, or drugs. Rather, happiness is an enduring state of contentment and feeling good; something that occurs over a longer period of time.


Paradox 1: Being Happy and Striving for Success

So if we use these two definitions: an improvement of the way things currently are, and an enduring state of contentment, then it becomes clear how difficult it is to combine happiness and success.

This is where we get to the first paradox: How exactly can we combine happiness and success, or personal development? How can we be content with what we have now, and yet strive to become our better selves?

In my opinion, you can’t really be ‘fully’ happy or perhaps ‘fully’ content, and strive for growth, personal development, and indeed, success. It’s an antithesis, a paradox. Because if you would be truly happy with the current state of affairs, why change them?


Paradox 2: Giving Up Happiness to Become Successful

We find a second paradox if we look at how we reach a state of success. In particular, in order to be successful, you sometimes have to give up your happiness.

Certainly, some people do what they love and get to the top regardless. But in many cases, you first have to be a bit less happy in order to achieve more success.

Obvious examples of this are high-demanding jobs; like lawyers at prestigious law firms, or management consultants at one of the Big Three. People who have these jobs often work for more than 60 hours per week, and do this for 5-15 years in order to get to the final destination: To Become ‘Partner’. Even if you really like your job, I doubt that anyone would be happy working 60+-hour weeks.

This is just one example, but we can think of many more. Suppose you have a baby that cries a lot; this may mean you have to get through several years of sleepless nights, before you can actually build a good bond with your child. Or perhaps you have to suffer at the gym for 100 hours before you really get in shape and can reap the rewards.

These examples may or may not be relevant to you, but it’s clear that sometimes, in order to be more successful, you have to be flexible with how happy you want to be.


Paradox 3: Goals and Buddhist Equanimity

The third and related paradox is found when discussing your goals in life. But first, I have to explain something about Buddhism and the idea of detachment and equanimity.

According to The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga (Levine), equanimity is “a sublime acceptance of the widest range of life’s alternatives. This attitude of equanimity is another form of the Buddhist ideal of detachment. The Buddhists teach: don’t be attached to winning, to comforts, to particular circumstances of life. Rather, be accepting of a wide range of possibilities.”

So it seems that this equanimity is a very useful tool if you want to become happy. After all, if you can accept and are truly content with any situation, you should be pretty happy, right? So why shouldn’t we try to be more equanimous? Well, if you are somewhat like me and strive for success, you often pick specific goals to reach — and this is where the third paradox comes into play.

Here, the book provides an interesting example: Suppose you’re a great flutist. Your goal is to play professionally, and this seems to be within reach. Detachment then, is to learn to let go, should it be necessary. To understand and acknowledge that your fluting career can be over in a whim — if you break your finger or are not deemed good enough to join the orchestra. To be able to walk away, without hard feelings.

But this seems impossible. Can you really approach life with equanimity while striving for grand goals? Can you dedicate your life to chasing a dream and still be satisfied and happy when it all falls apart? According to the book, devotion to a goal and attachment to it are two different things, but I disagree. In my opinion, you cannot fully devote yourself to something without also becoming attached. Or in other words, you cannot strive for success without becoming less happy if you don’t reach it.


Managing Happiness and Success

Considering these 3 paradoxes, how do we go about reaching a state of happiness and success at the same time? As mentioned, this is difficult to do. Luckily, there are (at least) 3 ways in which we can ‘ease our suffering’ and be happier — even when striving for improvements in our lives and success.

First, we can practice the mentioned equanimity. Being fully accepting of any and all situations is impossible, but we can try and be more accepting than we currently are. Whether it rains or shines, accept it. Try to accept the situation you’re in right now, and the situation you will be in tomorrow.

Second, we can practice gratitude. Practicing gratitude (which has a scientifically-proven positive impact on happiness) is the act of writing down (or thinking about) things you’re thankful for in your life. Practicing gratitude makes you pause for a bit. To not consider future states and the goals or success you hope to reach — but instead to consider the things in your current life you are content and happy with.

And third, we can actively try to live in the present. After all, the more you’re focussed on success, the more your head is in the future. I often think about ‘what will happen when I get rich’, or ‘what will happen when I get married’, or ‘what will happen when…’ But our lives are now. Our lives are now! We can work towards success, wish for it, and do everything to get to a certain place, as if our lives depended on it. But it’s not the goal that we should be happy with, but the road towards it. And after all is said and done, there’s only a limited amount of things we can exercise control over. We might be dead tomorrow. Or as Tyler Durden says in Fight Club:

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

Salary Progression: The Case for Merit Pay

We don’t like to talk about finance. We won’t easily share our income publicly, or even privately with those closest to us. And there are a lot of other strange aspects to finance and salary — not just that we don’t disclose it, but also how we handle money (not always rationally or in a way that is in our best interest) and the way we acquire money (by doing jobs we may not like).

One particular thing about acquiring money that has always confused me is the concept of salary progression and the importance of your age. Specifically, the way salaries progress over time at the same employer is broken. Let me tell you why.

Factors in Salary Progression

Salary progression at any employer currently looks a little bit like this. If you get a raise, it is often due to one of four things: 1) increased seniority (basically: you’re getting older), 2) a good performance rating, 3) a good result on an assessment of a specific skill, or 4) getting a new qualification, like a certificate or MBA.

Most of these make sense. After all, the idea is that if one of these variables go up, you must become better at your job which warrants higher pay. This also applies to seniority — the idea that the older you are, the more experience you have, thus the better work you deliver.

However, while performance ratings, assessments and new qualifications are strongly tied to increased output, seniority is not. I believe that except for inflation, there is not a whole lot to say for factoring in seniority in salary progression, as it does not necessarily result in increased output or productivity.


The Case for Output-Based Salary

There is a clear case for basing salaries on output, performance, or ‘how well you do your job’. When I worked as a civil servant a few years ago, one colleague always came in at 10 am and left at 4 pm. He/she didn’t really do much, and most of our colleagues didn’t even know what he/she was working on. Nonetheless, I’m sure that he/she got paid at least twice as much as me and others who just started their career but were working hard.

And this is no exception. Friends regularly tell me about older colleagues who deliver bad results but get paid much more than them. And it makes sense. If seniority indeed factors into salary progression, and if we consider that previous generations (used to) work for the same employer for 40 years, then it’s no mystery why there are people who get paid a lot but don’t necessarily do their job well.

Certainly, there are some jobs in which seniority does not play a role at all. A while ago I tweeted about this, and someone indicated that the salaries of consultants and sales people are generally not based on seniority. Specifically, in sales, you get a base salary plus a bonus for sales made. And consultants often get paid extra based on how well they did last year. But for most professions and employers, how old you are is pretty important in determining your salary.

Why Seniority Matters… Sometimes

Now there are some things to say for factoring seniority in salary decisions. If you have more experience in one job, we can expect you do to better. But if that is the important argument, shouldn’t we directly assess performance instead of indirectly assessing this on the basis of age?

Another reason not to disregard seniority in salaries is that we do usually spend more, the older we get. We may get children, and want to buy a house and support our family. However, much of our increased spending also comes from lifestyle inflation. If we disregard getting a family and perhaps medical costs, when we get older we don’t necessarily need to spend more. It’s just that we get used to certain luxuries and that ‘downgrading’ our lifestyle is difficult.

Lastly and most importantly, inflation is here to stay. This means that a salary increase of 3% (approximately the same as inflation) leaves you with the exact same purchasing power as last year. So if your salary doesn’t go up with more than 3%, then the number of things, products, or experiences you can buy actually decreases. So it makes sense to increase your salary by at least 3% every year. But we should name this for what it is: an inflation bonus.

Merit Pay

So what would this new type of salary progression look like? We could look at how companies that work with remote workers pay salaries. Often, this revolves around a base salary that is multiplied with a number that reflects your local costs of living. Take the social media company Buffer as an example, as it publishes the salaries of its team (and accompanying multipliers) publicly.

In the case of this new merit-based salary progression (or ‘merit pay’), we could do the same. You could have a base salary that is based on your output and how well you do, and then a little bit extra depending on how long you’ve been around. This extra should account for inflation and increased cost of living when you’re older.

Change in Salary Progression = Change in Mindset

If we consider that salary progression is broken, that seniority should not play such a big role, and that merit pay is a good alternative, then we should be able to easily change the way our salaries are determined, right?

Unfortunately, this is not so easy. Because the most difficult obstacle here is that we need to change our mindset. From a company point of view, employers should not just be willing to determine salaries (more) on the basis of output, but should also actively decrease someone’s salary if their output decreased compared to last year.

And if we want this to be accepted by employees, they should also change their mindset and be able to change spending patterns. But we are all so used to seeing our salaries only go up, that it will be incredibly difficult to accept that it can also go down. This again relates to lifestyle inflation; if you get used to a certain lifestyle, it can be very difficult to downgrade. People are simply not so flexible. Even though being able to not just increase, but also decrease salaries and spending, is exactly what we need.

Do you want to read more about my thoughts on work habits? Read about Differences in Work Breaks, or Lying in Sales.

Shiny Object Syndrome and its Cure: Essentialism

One aspect of the dilemmas of thirty-somethings, which I wrote about in my newsletter a while ago, is a focus on perfectionism and ‘wanting it all’. For example, we want a great and kind partner who is good witih children and meets all our expectations. Or we want a career that is fulfilling, enjoyable, important for the planet, and right in the center of an Ikigai venn diagram.

One cause of this perfectionism can be found in our broad interests. We’re interested in the world and all its different aspects. We’re adventurous and want to experience everyone and everything. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. If we look at our lives and compare them to previous generations, we’re lucky. Our world has become such an interesting place. But broad interests can also have a negative impact — as they can lead to not just perfectionism, but also the so-called Shiny Object Syndrome. This is something I’ve struggled with in the past, so in this article, I’ll discuss what this concept entails, where it comes from, and how essentialism can be a cure.


The Problem of Broad Interests

As an entrepreneur or someone who creates new things, broad interests and wanting (to do) it all can become a problem. Consider for instance that you want to build a new product. Perhaps you really like cooking, so you want to create a great cutting board made out of solid wood.

You start by creating a design, a logo, and creating a pre-order functionality on your new website. After a month or two of hard work, you don’t see any sales. That annoys you, and you don’t know what to do now.

Simultaneously, you’ve been reading a bit about importing products from China and selling these in your home market. This also seems like a very fun concept to pursue. Plus, there is so much information to find online on how to do this — so it might just be easier to start from scratch and build an import-export business instead.

Unfortunately, if you make this choice, it’s likely you end up with no successful business at all. Because soon after you choose to ditch the first project and start working on THE GREAT TRADING COMPANY, chances are, you think of something else to do. An idea that fits your interests even better, or is an even better business opportunity.


Shiny Object Syndrome

This idea of quickly switching focus is also called Shiny Object Syndrome. It’s a syndrome or dilemma that particularly new and aspiring entrepreneurs encounter, though you can also detect it as an employee.

Also called Entrepreneurial ADD, it’s something that you feel when you meet other people working on interesting businesses or ideas. For instance, after an entrepreneurship meetup, you may find yourself thinking about all the great businesses you heard about — and why you should emulate those, instead of continuing to work on your boring same-day-every-day small startup.

It’s easy to see why it’s called Shiny Object Syndrome. Anytime you encounter something new — whether it’s a project, idea or general area that interests you — you view it as a shiny new object. Just like a crow*, this new object is way more interesting than any other object that currently holds your attention.

And that’s an issue. In a meeting at work, it can be slightly disruptive or annoying when someone wants to talk about a new initiative they’re excited about but that isn’t on the agenda. But if your goal is to actually build or make something (whether it’s a business or a piece of art), this kind of Entrepreneurial ADD can be a real pain. That is because you often end up with nothing of value. Instead of 1 successful (but old) business, you now have 2 or more half-finished businesses that don’t work at all.

* Note that the idea that crows collect shiny objects is an urban myth! According to this amazing FAQ about crows.


The Cure: Essentialism and Focussing on Less

If you feel like you are suffering from something, you go look for a cure, right? In this case, the cure to Shiny Object Syndrome is essentialism. Made popular by McKeown’s book by the same name, the idea of essentialism is a focus on what’s important and the ‘disciplined pursuit of less’.

It’s saying ‘no’ to a lot of things, and knowing exactly when and for what to say no (and of course, to say yes). McKeown describes this as ‘becoming the Chief Editing Officer’. It’s asking yourself the question: What’s really important? If you know that, you realize that you have to edit away things of lesser importance for a greater good. Alternatively, in the words of Stephen Covey (of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame):

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

And that is hard to do. But the reason for focussing on the main thing is not just that it keeps you from being distracted. Rather, it’s the result from this ‘not being distracted-ness’ that’s important. Because by doing so, you can give much more attention to one object, which results in far greater progress. In the book, this idea is simplified by the following picture.

Illustrating the importance of Essentialism by McKeown

I’ve been thinking about this drawing a lot because it’s so simple and yet so perfectly describes the benefit of focussing on less. Specifically, if we combine all our efforts that we normally use to focus on 10 topics into just 1 topic, our progression increased tenfold. So whether you’re composing piano music, writing a book, building a software product, or baking cookings; if your heart is in it, and you persist in focussing on this one thing, day after day after day, the result will be amazing.


It’s Easier Said Than Done

So with the idea of Essentialism, it should be a piece of cake to deal with Shiny Object Syndrome! Right? Of course, things are often easier said than done, and that’s definitely something we all experience. Even after reading Essentialism, it’s not easy to truly make the right and unrestricted choices. Because if you’re interested in a lot of things, how do you decide which of your pursuits stay and which others have to go?

If I’m honest with myself, I should probably decide to ditch this blog, my newsletter, learning Chinese, learning to program in Python, the Enter Network meetups I organize, or even all of them simultaneously. That would give me much more time to pursue what’s truly important; though I’m not really clear about what that is yet.

But even if I can be this honest with myself and stop working on all these different projects, the difficult thing about essentialism is not that you have to make the right choice once — but that you have to make the right choices every day. To make essentialism not a one-time thing, but to weave it into your life. To keep focussing on the right things, and to keep yourself from pursuing other things you’re interested in. And unfortunately, I don’t think habit tracking will help you here.


Do We Need a Cure for Shiny Object Syndrome?

So essentialism can be a cure for Shiny Object Syndrome, but we should also consider whether we actually need a cure. After all, there are some benefits of this ‘syndrome’; for instance, sometimes it’s good to stop working on a project you don’t believe in.

Specifically, the fact that you want to start working on something new like the import-export business may not be caused by its new-ness, but rather by the fact that deep down you don’t believe in your amazing cutting board product anymore. In other words, sometimes we do need to ditch a project. Not because it’s distracting, but simply because it’s not what we thought it would be.

In addition, there are real benefits to having broad interests. It means that you’re curious about the world around you. And perhaps this results in you learning new languages, engaging in new adventures, new relationships, and new experiences.

So while we can and should give Shiny Object Syndrome and Essentialism all the attention that they deserve, we should consider this: having broad interests makes our world even more intruiging than it already is.